London's Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 1848-1972

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St Pancras 1904

[Report of the Medical Officer of Health for St. Pancras, London, Borough of]

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Conditions of sale of food at wholesale markets.—In the early part of the year,
enquiries were made by letters to certain wholesale markets as to the sale of
food substances in London. It was ascertained that the usual procedure is for
the food substances to be brought to the markets by companies or owners in
greater or less bulk, for the bulk to be broken by Brokers or Salesmen, and for
these to sell again to the retailers. It was further ascertained that the sales
take place at the risk of the purchasers, that the sellers do not give any
guarantee as to weight or quality, and that it would be impossible to carry on
business in these markets if every package bad to be re-sorted before selling,
but buyers are given every opportunity for examination. Furthermore, it is
the custom of the markets that persons purchasing damaged goods do so with
a full knowledge that they are buying and paying for the good portions only.
Food may be unhealthy on two main grounds—firstly, that it may be
injurious to health by reason of the addition of preservatives, colouring, or other
matters, and secondly, that it may be unfit for human consumption and
unwholesome by reason of disease, unsoundness, or contamination. The words
"injurious to health" and "unwholesome" appear to be merely different
expressions meaning the same thing. Those in the first category are controlled
by the Food and Drugs Acts, and those in the second by the Public Health
Acts. Now, the procedure under these two Acts is totally different. Under
the former, samples of food are purchased or taken by an Inspector, and if
upon analysis or examination a sample is found to contain some harmful
addition, the vendor or consignor is liable to a penalty not exceeding fifty
pounds. Under the latter, an Inspector may inspect and examine any food
sold, or exposed, or deposited for sale, or for preparation for sale, and in his
brief inspection and examination he must determine whether, in his opinion,
the food is diseased, unsound, or contaminated. These unwholesome conditions
may be visible or invisible; if visible the Inspector may seize the food and
obtain its condemnation and destruction by order of a Justice; if invisible or
unascertainable by immediate inspection and examination upon the spot, the
law provides no protection for the public. This position is borne out by the
opinion given by Mr. Courthope Munroe to the Public Health Committee in
February, 1900, when he explained that a sample of milk having been
purchased and found by bacteriological examination unwholesome, no action
could be taken under the Food and Drugs Acts, because there was no
adulteration by addition or by abstraction, and no action could be taken under
the Public Health Act because no seizure and condemnation had taken place,
and these steps are essential in order to ground an offence.
This opinion was given after the microscopical and bacteriological examination
of certain samples of milk taken in St. Pancras, in 1899 and 1900, showing
that they were dirty, contained an excessive number of microbes, excessive
number of leucocytes, pus in smaller or greater amounts, tubercle bacilli, blood,
or that coagulation had begun.